Narcolepsy and Your Diet
Eating well is a good choice for everyone, but it may be especially important for people with narcolepsy.
If you have narcolepsy, you have a higher risk of obesity. People with narcolepsy “have a tendency to put on weight because of the pathophysiological changes in narcolepsy,” says Michael Thorpy, MD, director of the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. “Therefore, you should try to keep an ideal body weight.”
Eating well helps you manage your weight. It may also ease your symptoms.
“Diet is one of a number of factors, including exercise, naps, avoiding tobacco and alcohol, and sleep schedule, that can affect narcolepsy symptoms,” says William Li, MD, medical director of the Angiogenesis Foundation in Cambridge, MA.
Try these tips to stay at a healthy weight and help with narcolepsy symptoms.
What to Eat
Try eating foods from every food group. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables in a rainbow of colors. Choose low-fat dairy products and fiber-rich whole grains. Cut back on saturated fats, trans fats, red meat, sodium, and sweets.
Try a low-carb diet. When you eat a big, high-carb meal, your body makes less of the hormone ghrelin, which stimulates wakefulness. “A meal that’s high in carbs can cause you to be sleepy,” Li says.
Try to eat meals that are low in carbohydrates. If you want to stay alert, proteins may be a better option than carbs, Thorpy says.
Consider a keto diet. Research is limited, but some people with narcolepsy say their symptoms improve when they follow a ketogenic (or keto) diet, which is a restrictive, low-carbohydrate, high-fat, moderate-protein diet.
“There’s some clinical data from small studies of low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet in people with narcolepsy,” Li says. “The results have shown some benefit, though the extent has been modest: about 18% improvement in daytime sleepiness.”
But a keto diet eliminates many nutrient-rich foods that are good for you, like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, milk, and yogurt. It may have short-term and long-term health risks and can lead to symptoms like constipation, dizzy spells, fatigue, and trouble sleeping.
Add prebiotics and probiotics to your diet. “Eat prebiotic and probiotic foods that can help improve gut health,” Li says. Some people with narcolepsy may have dysbiosis, or an imbalance in your gut’s microbial community.
Try probiotic foods like yogurt and sauerkraut, which give you more “good” bacteria. Try prebiotic foods like bananas, greens, onions, soybeans, and artichokes, which improve the balance of microorganisms in your gut.
Try caffeine. Caffeine can help you stay awake. It’s a stimulant and has been shown to help people stay alert, Li says.
“Just make sure you’re not having more than 250 mg of coffee a day, or about three 8-oz. cups,” says Harland Adkins, RDN, a nutritionist from Pittsburgh. “Consider cutting yourself off after around 4 pm, so caffeine doesn’t affect your nighttime sleep quality.”
Avoid alcohol. “People with narcolepsy should stay away from alcohol,” Li says. It’s a depressant for your central nervous system. “In fact, alcohol itself can induce sleepiness and has been known to cause alcohol-induced narcolepsy.”
How to Eat
With narcolepsy, when and how you eat may be as important as what you eat.
Eat early. Try to time your meals so you don’t eat too late at night. Late eating may get in the way of digestion and disrupt your sleep. If you do eat late, avoid spicy foods. They may cause indigestion or acid reflux and make it harder to get a good night’s sleep.
Eat small meals. Big, heavy meals are harder to digest. To improve your sleep quality, try eating smaller meals and snacks. This is especially important at night and before you drive or do other activities that you need to be alert for.
Remember that diet is part of a wholistic approach to narcolepsy, Li says. Try to make these changes along with other strategies, like exercise, strategically timed naps during the day, avoiding tobacco, and creating a healthy sleep schedule.